THE fight between the Government and 18 religious orders over a €500 million point of principle has been laid bare for the first time.
The critical issue, which is no closer to being resolved, is the Government’s insistence that 50% of a €1.5bn redress bill should be met by the congregations responsible for running institutions probed by the Ryan Report.
A €127m contribution was agreed under a 2001 indemnity deal. Further offers were made in 2009.
But the Department of Education feels the combination is still €500m short of the €750m target set in the Programme for Government.
The request has been rejected by almost all of the orders involved, with varying degrees of disdain for the tactics adopted by successive governments in a bid to deliver on it.
Details of three years’ worth of negotiations between the orders and the Department of Education and the congregations have now been released.
The publication of these papers became possible after the Coalition abandoned a hard-line strategy in July. This had included an expressed attempt to seek the total transfer of education infrastructure into the State’s ownership. It was to be explicitly in lieu of cash payments to the redress scheme.
The department has deemed this process to be over and, as a consequence, decided that communications from the negotiations should be made public.
The original commitment in the Programme for Government, agreed by the Coalition in 2011, targeted schools’ assets as an alternative means of getting religious orders to increase the value of their offers.
“We will negotiate the transfer of school infrastructure currently owned by 18 religious orders cited in the Ryan Report, at no extra cost, to the State.
“In principle, school buildings and land will be zoned for educational use, so that they cannot easily be sold and lost to system,” it said.
This line was softened by the Cabinet in July following a proposal by the department to accept properties, but allow congregations to remain in control of the assets and take control of land that had been put into trust. The idea, as detailed in a proposal to the minister in February, was to de-couple the redress dispute from the wider school patronage issue and seek to reach the same end by a different route.
This came after a difficult 2012 which began with letters from the minister to each of the orders involved, restating his position on the Programme for Government and seeking views on an alternative approach to the transfer of education assets. There had been meetings throughout 2011, in groups and individually, but by and large the offers that were made by the orders in late 2009 remained.
Broadly, the orders fall into three categories: Those who say they cannot pay, those who say they will not pay and those who say they may pay a little more under certain conditions.
In some cases, such as the Daughters of Charity, the Sisters of Charity and the Christian Brothers, the cash commitments were delayed or shelved due to the depressed property market.
Other congregations, such as the Presentation Brothers, made small amendments to their offers to increase the likely value to the State.
The most powerful religious order, the Sisters of Mercy, said its voluntary offer was non-negotiable. A briefing note, prepared for the minister in January ahead of a meeting with Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore on the Programme for Government, summarised the State’s stance.
“Clearly there is a wide gap to realise a 50% contribution and the minister proposed the transfer of school infrastructure at no cost to the State as one mechanism to allow those involved the opportunity to shoulder their share of the costs.
“The schools involved would continue in their own ethos until they decide otherwise. However, the responses from the congregations continue to be most disappointing,” it said.
The position had barely moved from Education Minister Ruairi Quinn’s correspondence of Feb 2012, in which he expressed frustration at the attitude of the orders and, as he set out in a letter to the De La Salle order, the Government did not want to deviate from the desire to split the €1.5bn bill.
“I wish to confirm that the 50:50 approach was taken in the light of the resources available to the congregations. I have confirmed that the present Government believes that a 50:50 approach is right and just in the light of the Ryan Report and the capacity of the congregations to meet their share of the costs incurred,” Mr Quinn said.
Many of the orders wrote back revealing anger at the State’s handling of the redress scheme and, in particular, the decision to extend it in 2005.
Orders such as the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity said the Government is simply looking for retrospective agreement to cover the costs it incurred because of poor administration of the redress scheme.
Many of the orders feel they have made concessions but the State has not been able to provide information required to progress talks.
One of the key problems has been the confidentiality clause attached to the Redress Board. This prevents the orders getting an order- by-order breakdown of the awards.
Such a breakdown was requested to allow the orders to decide which of them should carry the greater burden as they are now dealing with the State as individual groups, rather than as a unit under the umbrella of CORI.
In a statement to the Irish Examiner the Trustees of the Brothers of Charity said that without this information, the orders were left in the dark. “Based on the best calculations that can be made from the information available, the trustees are of the opinion that the contributions they have already made amount to at least a 50:50 sharing of the costs.
“Also, arising from previous meetings with the minister, there was an expectation that every effort would be made to provide those responsible for managing the institutions concerned with accurate information with regard to the costs incurred and the trustees feel that only if and when that information can be provided will they be able to ascertain with any greater certainty what the actual position may be in respect of the contributions they have made,” it said.
This is a position articulated by many other, particularly smaller orders, in correspondence with the department.
However, the tone and direction underpinning the original Programme for Government commitment was obviously targeted at two orders who for the best part of a century controlled much of the Irish school system.
The Sisters of Mercy and the Christian Brothers have both moved to push education sites into trusts and have flatly refused to accept the approaches of the State.
The Sisters of Mercy has told the minister it made a voluntary offer in 2009 and that was final.
It also expressed resentment at the Programme for Government demand and it said that while this stood, talks on school patronage could not happen.
“In the course of several letters and meetings, I have explained our position that we are not responsible for a 50:50 cost sharing.
“The congregation of the Sisters of Mercy has not made any agreement with the Government to pay half of the State’s expenditure in respect of redress and [the Commission to inquire into Child Abuse],” the congregational leader Sr Coirle McCarthy said.
Meanwhile the Christian Brothers said it was the Government’s problem.
“On the question of the 50:50 sharing of costs I would make the following observations.
“Firstly, it is notable that no such principle was ever discussed and secondly, the concept was never mooted until after the publication of the Ryan Report and after the submission of voluntary incremental offers by the congregations in November 2009.
“In this respect it is a unilateral construct developed retrospectively without consultation and without regard to the ability to pay,” said its province leader Brother JK Mullan.
Other orders feel their sins were not as great as others and asked the department to leave them alone.
The De La Salle brothers said none of its brothers were ever convicted of a criminal offence and the threat of litigation was the only reason it agreed to its initial contribution.
The chairman of its provincial council, Brother Francis Manning, said the State alone was to blame for the increased costs of redress because it extended the scheme from 2005 to 2011.
And it said the proposal in the Programme for Government was not something it would consider.
“The transfer of schools to the State is not an issue of patronage but of the inalienable right of the congregation to dispose of its property as its sees fit,” said Brother Manning.
The financial standing of other, smaller, congregations has given them cause to ask the State to relent in its demands for more money. The province leader of the Good Shepherd Sisters, Sr Bernadette McNally, said it was dependent on its investment portfolio to fund its services and it needed money to care for its elderly members.
The Daughters of Charity is one of the orders that has not only refused to entertain the idea of additional contributions to the redress fund, but has also found it difficult to honour its original promise.
In letters to the minister in 2012 the Daughters of Charity said the collapse of the property market had created “immense problems” in its attempt to sell property to fund the bulk of its €10m commitment to the statutory fund.
The order told the minister his department had been made aware that its original promise was linked to its plan to sell land assets. And it believed the concept of a 50:50 cost sharing between the orders and the State was “impossible for us to consider”.
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